therapist tips

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Why Kids Lie & How to Respond Effectively

A mother brought a young child to see me because, she said, “he lies all the time.” She asked the boy in front of me, “Why do you lie?”
To which he replied, “Mom, I learned it from you.”

“I don’t lie!” said the mom.

“Don’t you remember,” he said, “when your friend called and said she wanted to come over and you said you were sick, but you weren’t?”

“Oh,” said the mom, “that was a ‘Mentira piadosa’.” [Spanish for white lie or, literally, a pious lie]

We all do it.

“I love this gift,” and “I didn’t see you text” are the most common white lies.

Why do we do it?

Because we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. Or we want to avoid an awkward conversation. Or, if we’re honest about it, we don’t want to be seen as insensitive or even cruel. In other words, we want to avoid the unpleasant consequences of telling the truth.

Kids are the same. They lie so that adults don’t get mad at them. Or so that they don’t get in trouble. Or so that others don’t think ill of them. They don’t want to be punished, rejected, or embarrassed by telling the truth. And because kids still have magical thinking, they believe that they won’t be caught. They can lie about the most obvious things, which adults sometimes find insulting: “There’s a trail of crumbs leading to your room and your mouth is smeared in chocolate. How do you expect me to believe that you didn’t eat the cookies?”

Do’s and don’t’s to reduce the need for lying and encourage kids to come clean:

  • Don’t set traps. If you know the truth, pretending that you are trying to find what happened is just a set up for a lie. In the example above, don’t ask who ate the cookies. You know who. If you pretend that you don’t know, you are the one who is not being honest.
  • Don’t interrogate. Asking, “why did you do it” is inviting more lies, or non-answers like, “I don’t know.”
  • Don’t call names. Throwing around the word “Liar!” worsens the relationship and shuts down communication.
  • Don’t lecture about honesty or morality. Sermons don’t usually work.
  • Don’t set consequences so dire that kids are terrified to be found out. If the punishment for something is intolerable, they will go to their grave denying they did it.
  • Do: state your disappointment, restate the rules, and state the consequences.
  • Do: find ways to repair broken trust, broken objects, and hurt feelings. “Here’s what might help put things back together…”
  • Do: When your facts don’t match the child’s version, phrase disagreement this way: “that’s not how I remember it,” or “we have a different view of what happened.” You might just find you were mistaken.
  • Do: forgive. Restoring credibility is a long task. It might take even longer if the child keeps being reminded of the lie. By forgiving you also model a virtue.
photo of Ofra Obejas, Registered Play Therapist

About the Therapist

Ofra Obejas, LCSW, RPT, is a child and family therapist in Redondo Beach, CA, specializing in helping children learn how to manage their feelings and helping parents take a more positive response when children act out.

Learn more about Ofra's services, experience, and credentials.